School gains a testing victory

Van Bokkelen leaves state's needs-improvement list

July 01, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

After more than a decade of state monitoring, Van Bokkelen Elementary School finally has overcome the labels emphasizing its struggles.

The school system successfully appealed the state's ruling that special-education pupils did not make adequate progress on recent state tests. As a result, Van Bokkelen was taken off the list of schools in need of improvement.

"I think we really have turned the corner at Van Bokkelen," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

Staff members learned the news Wednesday at a summer school training session with other schools that have a high proportion of children from low-income families.

"We cheered and celebrated," said social worker Claudette Robinson.

Teachers and staff "were just so committed and dedicated to that school and the children and the families," said Rose Tasker, who retires today as principal after 36 years with the school system.

"It's just an exciting way for [Tasker] to end her career," said Andrea Rose, Van Bokkelen's incoming principal. Rose was hired by Tasker as a teacher at Van Bokkelen, and for the past two years she was principal at Hillsmere Elementary in Annapolis.

Tasker was sent to Van Bokkelen in 1996, after the school had slipped to the lowest rating under a former testing system. The state later established a new method to measure progress based on the federal No Child Left Behind law, but schools retained their ranking from the old program.

No Child Left Behind requires that students in subgroups, including minorities or those who receive services such as special education, must show "adequate progress" on the Maryland School Assessments or their schools will face sanctions. To escape the penalties, pupils must achieve progress for two consecutive years.

In many ways, Van Bokkelen is one large subgroup. Black children, which represent a fifth of the district as a whole, fill more than 90 percent of the school's 424 seats. Four out of every five children at Van Bokkelen this year qualified for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.

Poverty leads to instability that contributes to a high mobility rate. In 2004, about 20 percent of children entered school after the first day and about 17 percent withdrew before completing a full year.

Those obstacles make the victorious appeal more satisfying.

"It's a celebration for everyone, but more than that, it's a confirmation that we can do it," Rose said. "We can make the same progress as every other school in the county."

In 2003, the number of children in poverty who reached advanced or proficient levels on the mathematics test was one-tenth of 1 percent below state standards. However, despite their challenges, pupils in all groups last year achieved the state's goals.

This year, about 65 percent of black fifth-graders reached standards in math - up from 20 percent in 2003.

"They are definitely moving in the right direction," Smith said.

However, only four of 28 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in special education achieved advanced or proficient levels on the state reading tests; six of them reached those levels on the math test.

Last year, following the guidelines under No Child Left Behind, the school developed a plan to hire new staff members in areas where children did not show adequate progress on the tests. Tasker interrupted a Virginia vacation to attend a state Board of Education meeting Wednesday morning to approve revisions to the plan.

But district officials felt confident about the possibility of an appeal after the announcement last week about schools in need of improvement, and they were right. On Wednesday afternoon, the school system learned the school would not have to execute its strategy.

State officials agreed that one child was incorrectly classified as special education, Tasker said. Several others would be eligible to take a modified version of the Maryland School Assessment that will be developed next year, she said.

Children left school on June 16. About 100 will return next week for a summer program.

"I just know that they're going to be so excited that they're going to hold on to this," Tasker said. "It's going to help them get through this year and continue to reach the higher goal."

Rose said the announcement "creates more of a fresh start for the entire community."

"I know the things that were put in place were working. I can just continue to build on the growth that we've made."

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